The theater has celebrities but usually needs money; the people who have money usually like celebrities; and often the two manage a trade-off, as a fund-raiser for the New Playwrights' Theatre at the Kennedy Center showed last night.

Through a savvy combination of contacts and chutzpah, a 125-seat theater that some of the celebrities had never heard of managed to pull in a crowd that any benefit organizer would give her mink for. It raised about $20,000 in the process, a good chunk of cash for a theater with a $250,000 annual budget.

The second annual Richard L. Coe awards honored playwrights' agent Audrey Wood, several of whose noted clients came to pay tribute to the absent and ailing Wood. Ernest Thompson ("On Golden Pond," "West Side Waltz") donned red satin pajamas and played Stanley Kowalski to Eva Marie Saint's Blanche (Tennessee Williams was a Wood client for a time). Williams, Coe said, "sends greetings to us all from -- I think it was Tangiers." George Grizzard and Elizabeth Wilson did a scene from Robert Anderson's "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running." Anderson has been Wood's client for about 36 years. "She would go any place (to get a client)," said Anderson. "She found me on a battleship in the Pacific and she changed my life."

Carol Channing, an old pal of Coe's, added glamour, and the Washington theater establishment from Roger Stevens to Frankie Hewitt to the Warner's Sam L'Hommedieu turned out in force.

Since Joseph Papp put NPT -- now thinking of renaming itself the National Playwrights' Theatre -- on the map a few years ago by allowing it to use his name to raise money, this theater has grown in stature as well as size. About 1,700 playwrights have been critiqued in one form or another over the last five years, and several have gone on to productions in bigger theaters.

The theater recruited professional fund-raisers and such "corporate types" as executives and accountants and before too long one of them, Sandra Westin, had the idea for the Coe Award, which honors the drama critic emeritus of The Washington Post. Even founder Harry Bagdasian's mother, Pauline, bought a $100 ticket. "I think I've seen all the plays," she said, "even the clinkers."

"I haven't actually heard of the theater," said director Jeffrey Hayden, who was standing next to his wife, actress Eva Marie Saint, "but I understand Dick Coe has been very supportive."

Producer Richard Barr, lamenting the difficulty -- if not impossibility -- of getting plays produced on Broadway if you don't own one of the theaters, said that independent producers like himself are turning increasingly to off-Broadway and resident theaters, all of which makes an incubator like the New Playwrights' Theatre a potential resource for producers looking for their next hit.

Anderson and fellow playwright Arthur Kopit accepted the award for Wood, who is in a nursing home after suffering a severe stroke two days after completing her memoirs. Kopit said, "Audrey would be saying, 'Get on with it dears. Produce plays.' "